MY NAME is Johnny Pace. Longitude, 6-2; net 189; topography even; eyes and hair a camouflage brown. I cross the frontier of Pakowsky’s Corner Store, and the customer bell jangles just as it used to do twelve years ago.
“Montreal Gazette, sonny.”
“Yessir!” He’s abbreviated, freckled, probably Pakowsky No. Eight. It’s almost midnight, and he’s too young to be working. But he grins confidently as he hands me my change. When he notices my limp his eyes take an elevator to the fifth floor.
“Gee! Mister, yer leg! I mean, was you at Dieppe?”
“That’s right,” I say. “I was at Dieppe.”
“There was sure action there, wasn’ there, sir?”
“There certainly was,” I agree.
Drifting past the window a light snow is garnishing the streets that are a dirty brown from foot and wheel. The flakes started at the railway station, la gare Bonaventure, earlier in the evening, when I came home from Dieppe. I came limping home with my shield. I might have been on it.
I mate the Gazette gently with a parcel I have under my arm. It is a very important parcel. It is The-Parcel-That-Mustn’t-Be-Crushed. It is part of a story that will end within the hour.
“Anythin’ else, sir?”
“No, I don’t think . . . wait, hold it! Yes, there is. One thing more.”
I limp to a section of the store I know so well from twelve years ago. Young Pakowsky watches me with a dignified fascination . . .
TONIGHT it is January. The air is cold and sweet. I think of January, 1929. Then life was laced with sunshine for most of the middle-class families. No war. No ration cards. Everyone seemed to have a job, and little to worry about. The Pace family played around centre ice. Dad was a machinist, a good one. Beyond that I can say only that he was a man who deserved having a woman like my mother make him happy. I was the eldest son, twelve; Bruce was six, Bill had just turned four, while Quentin was still being serviced. We lived in one of the compact, pretty little suburbs bordering the St. Lawrence, Ville Ste. Celie. Dad had a car, we went on picnics summer Sundays after church, a Scottie practiced dentistry on slippers, and we were all very, very happy.
It was snowing, too, that January 26 in 1929. A blizzard. It spun across the river and transformed the street lights into glowing blobs. I remember the time exactly: 7.30. Dad and I were walking along the river road toward our favorite dessert, Canada’s national pastime, hockey. We were crossing Rue de la Fosse, at the corner, when this car shot out of the night.
Rue de la Fosse was icy from a thaw-then-freezing duet. The car was going fast. Much too fast. It skidded, rounding the corner.
I screamed. “Dad ! Look out!”
I don’t think he ever knew what hit him. They told me later that the front wheel had struck him from behind, broken his right leg, and then the spinning left rear had swung directly across his falling body, mashing his skull.
I do know it happened so quickly that almost before I realized it he was on the street in a spreading pool of blood. The car had slithered crazily with the impact. The headlights shone on my father’s face.
“Dad!” I sobbed. “Get up . . . please get up!”
I heard footsteps. A man went to his knees beside us. He was wearing a round, black hat, a dark coat buttoned high around his neck. His breath was bad. He took one look—I saw him go very white around the mouth. His eyes almost started out of his head. And they were green. His eyes were pale green. Even with the whole ghastly moment gyrating in my brain, the oddity took predominance. His eyes. His green, staring eyes.
“A doctor,” I blubbered. “Mister, you’ll get a doctor?”
He ran. He ran to his car. It roared off along the river road. I thought he had gone for help. He hadn’t. He never came back.
That’s the way it was. That much Mom knows, and the girl to whom I am taking The-Parcel-That-Mustn’t-Be-Crushed, and many others. They met me at the station some hours ago. There was pride in their eyes, thanks in the touch of their hands. I shall be home again in a few minutes. They will be waiting . . .
I gave the police as much information as I could. No, I hadn’t noticed that license number. It was a long car, yes. The man had a fat face.
“And his eyes were green !” I shouted. “A funny, pale green!”
“Don’t worry, sonny,” they said. “Leave it to us. We’ll find him.”
They never did. No, they never did.
We lived a year on the insurance. It was borrowed time. My mother was an Englishwoman. Perhaps she had her faults, if pride and defiance are faults. We didn’t impose on her parents in England, nor my father’s people in Los Angeles. They offered, of course, but we stuck it out alone. My mother went back to her pre-wedding secretarial work. She hired a girl to shepherd us in the daytime. It wasn’t the same.
Gradually we were forced to beat a retreat. We moved to what conservative speakers refer to as “the factory district,” an address dedicated to commerce and not habitation, skirting either side of the Lachine Canal.
I’ll mention poverty in four words: beet-tops, cold, charities, the landlord. The rest you may imagine. You do remember those years? People looked at the hole in their lives and called it The Great Depression. Thousands were in the stoke-hold of the same boat with us but we were nearest to the bottom.
The green eyes? I hadn’t forgotten them. I never shall forget them, though their part in the story is over as I stand here in Pakowsky’s Corner Store.
AT FIFTEEN I said good-by to the high school - my mother had forced me to attend. I signed on with the Aimé Charbonneau chain garages, setting my course as an apprentice mechanic. I worked hard. We were just sighting the sun over the horizon, after three years, when Mom struck a reef. Tuberculosis, the Salvage Master said.
“Ste. Agathe in the Laurentians?” I asked him. “It would help, son,” he said.
So she went. You don’t argue with T.B.
When I was twenty-two I met Elizabeth Stevens. By this stage I had graduated to chief mechanic on the night shift of Charbonneau’s largest garage. Mom was still in Ste. Agathe. I phoned a Time Recorder company for the correct time, which came automatically via records. I happened to take the wrong number from the phone book. It was the office line.
Elizabeth answered. I didn’t know her name then. I knew only that she had the softest, sweetest, most refreshing voice I had ever heard. She worked at night attending to this time-announcing machinery. I phoned often after that first favor from fortune. In six weeks of conversational snatches something new and exciting appeared to both of us. I called at her office on the pretext of inspecting the novel equipment they possessed.
She opened the door. She was about five foot four, her hair anthracite and shining. When she smiled I was done for. Finished.
“Hello, Johnny.” That was all she said.
“Hello, Elizabeth.” She gave me both hands. I thought of a crazy thing like kissing them. But I didn’t.
It was, quite simply, love. She lived four blocks away from us, by the Canal. We had fun. We went to the symphonies atop Mont Royal. You sit on the slopes and hear just as well without paying. We took long walks in Parc Lafontaine. I remember the Grenadier Guards band playing “Vive les Canadiens” while the autumnal ballet of leaves pirouetted around her ankles. Hundreds of gay moments. A part of Heaven.
I remember, most of all, the night that was the prelude to my meeting with Curtiss Wickert, his father Sidney, and Cecelia. As I stand here in Pakowsky’s Corner Store it seems distant, yet almost yesterday.
It was August. A man called Schickelgruber by some, and harsher things by others, had gone into partnership with Mars. Elizabeth and I stopped in the middle of the cantilever bridge spanning the murky Lachine Canal. A Great Lakes freighter was coming through the locks.
“Looks like war,” I said.
Elizabeth had a gardenia in her hair. That’s right, a gardenia. My gardenia. For years, ever since I had read a magazine story, I had wanted to buy a girl a gardenia, not for a gesture or an occasion, but just to see the light in her eyes.
“You’ll be going away,” she said.
“That’s right.” I tried to sound noncommittal.
She turned toward me. The freighter hooted. Water sloshed in the locks. The harsh lights on the bridge were suddenly soft, like the candles in a shrine.
“I’ll miss you, Johnny.”
I kissed her. Her lips were warm and promising. The war in Europe was very far away.
Someone shouted, “G’wan, get goin’! Get goin’!” It was the lock-tender. He saw my face and added in a raucous laugh, “Oho! Hey, mister, why dontcha marry the girl?”
Yeah. Why didn’t I? Is it so strange that I thought then of a man with green eyes in a way that should have been frightening, but wasn’t?
IN TEN days Canada declared war. I took months to build up a reserve. I explained matters to the housekeeper who had been with us since Mom had gone to Ste. Agathe. Mrs. Theresa Maureen McCool, 210, a grand, generous Irishwoman, widowed. If I were to attempt a humble imitation of her talk I would say she had a heart that turned up its nose at mention of an inadequate salary from a soldier. Bruce had reached sixteen, earning seven dollars over that figure in a steel plant. He was quiet, responsible. At last I went to Ste. Agathe to see Mom.
“Do you think I’m doing the right thing? It’s going to be tough.”
She smiled from the sun porch chair. “We’ll manage. Your father would have expected you to enlist, John.”
“Some day, somewhere,” I said. “I’ll find the man who killed him.”
“You mustn’t talk like that, John! Just—take care of yourself.”
“Sure,” I said. “Sure, Mom.”
Because I knew motors, and proved it, I had no trouble joining a tank unit. I was around Montreal for a week when, abruptly, the wheels started to roll. I finalled in an Ontario camp. It was there I met Curtiss Wickert.
He was a thoroughbred, by Queen’s, out of Toronto. Tall, lean, sensitive, nearing twenty. And in a tank unit. That he had travelled I knew, for he spoke of skiing in Sun Valley, the stench at Cairo, and English crumpets, with the quiet assurance of sight and experience.
We were washing up after a day of exhausting manoeuvres when he told me.
“You see, my mother’s been dragging me around the globe since I was old enough to yell for more milk, which isn’t very old. And the guys you meet at afternoon musicales and tea dances aren’t the same as I knew they would be in the Army. The real Army, starting at the bottom. I kicked over the traces. I’m having a swell time here, Johnny.”
He was, too. You could tell by the way he listened during the lectures,the gleam in his eyes when the tanks churned across the Ontario countryside.
In three months we were corporals. Around the camp they called us Mud and Sinker. Close. I knew he had one sister, Cecelia. He said little about her. It was when he spoke of his father that warmth flooded his voice.
“I want you to meet him, Johnny. To me, he’s —well, just about the best father any son ever had.” He knew that my father had been killed by a hit-and-run driver. His sympathy was as deep and sincere as though he himself had felt the loss. But I didn’t mention the green eyes. Somehow I couldn’t talk about them. They were a bitter pill ; the years had given them a thin coating, disguising a taste I was trying hard to forget. Mom had asked me to forget.
It was a special day for visitors, with a dance scheduled for the evening, when Cecelia came down. Curtiss and I conducted her around the grounds. She was wearing a grey-check sports suit over a blue sweater; a tall, intense-looking girl with blond hair sweeping low to her shoulders, and a wide sultry mouth.
“So you’re Johnny Pace,” she said. “Curtiss has often mentioned you in his letters. When are you coming to Toronto to see us?”
“Soon, I hope,” I said. Curtiss had asked me, often.
She flicked her eyes over me, cool, very assured.
“When you do come I’m having you all to myself, remember that.”
We danced that night. Frequently. Whenever 1 turned she was at my shoulder. I caught Curtiss watching us with a funny frown in his eyes. 1 thought he was worried whether she was enjoying herself. I made a special effort to be nice to Cecelia Wickert.
When she was leaving she leaned forward and ran her hand along my collar, curling her fingers slightly.
“Aren’t you going to kiss me good-by, Johnny? Curtiss has.”
She held the kiss a fraction over the respectable time limit. “Toronto,” she said. “Good-by, Curtiss. Don’t get your feet wet. ’By, Johnny.”
“So long,” I said. 1 was feeling pretty confused.
Back in barracks Curtiss was extra quiet. “Cecelia seems to have taken quite a liking to you, Johnny. Of course you’d make any girl go overboard, but well, when we get to my place play it safe, huh?”
“Why?” I asked, feeling good now in spite of myself.
“I’m thinking of you, Johnny. Cecelia’s not not your type. I know her. She ” He squirmed uncomfortably. “Anyway she’s engaged to a Mr. Edgar Barraway the Second, or maybe it’s the Third.”
“You’ve forgotten Elizabeth,” I said.
He brightened at that. “Yeah, that’s right. Sorry. Skip it, won’t you?”
IN A MONTH they gave us a five-day junket. Curtiss was pursuing a cold; he had already caught the rearguard. Cecelia noticed it when she met us in Toronto on a Friday night with a maroon multi-cylinder job that was as wide and lowdown as a politician’s smile.
“So you did get your feet wet, stupe.” But she was looking at me. “Hi, Johnny.”
“Hi,” I said. She was beautiful, and she knew it. I had never met anyone like her. She knew that, too.
For the Wickerts’ home was a mansion, a grand old house, sprawling, served on a plate of April lawns spiced with flowers.
A deflated butler answering to Thomas relieved us of our combined outers. A tall spare woman swept through an arched doorway at the end of the hall. She had high cheekbones, a shade too much in jewellery.
“Curtiss, my dear!’’
“Hello, mother.” Curtiss was roundly kissed.
Cecelia whipped through the introduction, blithely. I noticed Mrs. W’ickert frowning at Curtiss. He was snuffling hopelessly.
“Sorry to bring your son home with a cold, Mrs. Wickert,” I said.
She hovered over him. “Dear, if you had taken the officers’ course [ wanted you to, I’m sure you wouldn’t have this cold. The officers do get better treatment, don’t they, Mr. Pace?”
Curtiss reddened. I said “We-e-ell,” in what I hoped reflected a you-know-how-it-is attitude.
Cecelia cut in quickly. “Where’s Dad, Mother?”
Mrs. Wickert gave a short twitch to her nose. “Y'our father was called away to Halifax suddenly on business again, Cecelia.”
“Then we won’t see him?” Curtiss’s voice was dull with disappointment.
“Perhaps next time, dear.” It was said quite casually.
“As a contractor I imagine Mr. Wickert must be very busy,” I ventured.
Mrs. Wickert said nothing. I knew then that all was not well in the Wickert alliance.
Next morning we went on a sightseeing tour. Curtiss came, saw, and was conquered. In the evening he was in bed and a ruddy-complexioned doctor gave his verdict.
“Possible flu. Keep him in bed for a day or two, leave or no leave.” He didn’t add “fifteen dollars please,” but his voice had that tone.
Cecelia stopped me on the first bend of the mansion’s magnificent theatrical staircase. “It does look as though I’m going to have you all to myself.”
Sunday morning after church we had dinner and fiancé Edgar Barraway. That Mrs. Wickert had gone for him, straight, place, and show, was certain. She cooed over him. Cecelia’s kiss was decidedly perfunctory. I saw him scowl. He was a short, very evenly mustached young man, just fat enough to remind you of a bowl of thick cream oozing slowly over the sides.
“What were you doing before you joined the services, Mr. Pace?” he asked me.
“Working in a garage,” I said. “How about you, Mr. Barraway?”
“Edgar is general manager in my father’s firm,” inserted Cecelia.
Mr. Barraway nodded. “Perhaps I can persuade your father to make me vice when we’re married, Cecelia. Those hats you wear, you know !” He whistled expensively. We laughed. But the laughter had a brittle echo.
I didn’t need glasses to see the handwriting on the wall.
Curtiss didn’t improve. Mrs. Wickert stayed backstage. Cecelia had a clear field. We took in several movies, a deb dance and a number of shows. As a soldier’s furlough it left nothing to be desired except Cecelia. I enjoyed myself. It was part of a world I had never been in.
On the last day Curtiss’ cold showed signs of relaxing its adhesive plaster tenacity. It had been a miserable leave for him.
I remember Cecelia’s last words at the station.
“It’s easy to break an engagement.” She stood near.' “You’ll be back,Johnny?”
This time I was the one who held the kiss a fraction over the respectable time limit. “Yes, I’ll be back,” I said, unsteadily. “I haven’t seen your father.”
Her smile held triumph. “That’s true,” she said. “You haven’t met father.”
SIX TEMPESTUOUS WEEKS stormed by before I managed to get home to see Mom and Elizabeth, Mom was looking better. At home. Mrs. McCool had everything just so. I told Elizabeth about Curtiss, and Cecelia. We were alone in her parlor, the last night, when I showed her the snapshots.
“She’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen,” said Elizabeth.
“She is rather attractive,” I admitted. At the same time I noted with appreciation Elizabeth’s elfin grace. She was wearing something simple, excitingly crimson. The Army pin I had given her shone at her breast.
We talked. It wasn’t until days later that I realized just how much the name of Cecelia Wickert had entered into my conversation.
When it was time to say good-by she held out her hand. I looked at it. “Aren’t you—going to kiss me?” She didn’t make excuses. “No, Johnny. Not again—until I’m sure.”
She kept her hand out. I felt anger rising within me. I took her around the wrist and pulled her against me, close. I kissed her savagely, once, twice, three times. The first two she didn’t stir. It was worse than if I hadn’t kissed her at all. The third time she fought free. The pin at her breast caught in my tunic pocket. The crimson dress ripped.
She covered the breach with her left hand. And then, very slowly and deliberately, she drew the back of her right hand across her mouth.
I flung myself out of the house. And I was sick, I tell you.
It was midsummer before I went back to the Wickerts’. By then the ache had eased a little. And there was always Cecelia.
It was raining when our train sneezed into Union Station. A steady, blowing downpour. The concourse was sardined with welcomers. Eagerly, Curtiss sought his father.
“Dad! You old water buffalo!”
He lunged through the crowd and a stocky figure met him. I wriggled forward, shook hands with Mrs. Wickert and kissed Cecelia before I turned to Mr. Wickert.
“Meet Damon,” Curtiss was saying, “of the firm of Damon and Pythias.”
The man swivelled. “Of course, of course!” he said. “John Pace. How do you do, Mr. Pace! A pleasure to see you at last!”
I looked at Sidney M. Wickert. I looked, just once, and it was enough.
Sidney M. Wickert was wearing a round, black hat. The collar of his dark gabardine coat was still high around his neck. But it was his eyes. His eyes were pale green!
They were the eyes of the man who had killed my father.
I knew it. In that single, sweeping moment, I knew it. It is hard, trying to say how I felt. The station lights didn’t blur. I didn’t stagger.
Everything was crystal clear. I could see again the pallor in my mother’s face, from hunger, and fear that stemmed from the thought of continuing to live as this man had caused us to live. For eleven years I had planned what I should do when I found him.
I didn’t do it, of course. I remained quiet and sane and reasoning.
“How do you do, Mr. Wickert,” I said.
He stared at me. There was a puzzled look on his face. Almost as though he were trying to remember. Then he shrugged, a gesture of dismissal. When we headed for his car my heart was pounding against my ribs and a cold sweat was prickling my entire body.
THAT NIGHT we .went on a scavenger hunt. Curtiss convoyed a retreaded blond baptized Victoria, but Cecelia and I won.
Finally they presented our spoils, a silver cigarette case and a flagon of Scotch for me; for Cecelia an evening bag and two fingers of French perfume. I was glad of the Scotch. I knew what I was going to do with it.
Breakfast was very formal. Mrs. Wickert held the floor with a dissertation on the merits of Mr. Edgar Barraway. Cecelia was quiet.
Sidney M. Wickert was reading when I entered his elaborate library. He shut the book with a snap.
“Business or pleasure?” I smiled.
He smiled in return, short, sharp. “Toss-up. I have just been awarded a large government contract, but I may have to move to Halifax.”
“Congratulations on both,” I said. “Because if you do go I think you’ll find Halifax quite an inspiring city.”
I gave him the Scotch. “My share of the winnings in the slum steeplechase.”
“Well, well!” He examined the bottle thoroughly. “Thank you, indeed, Pace! This is, as it so happens, my favorite brand.”
His favorite brand. Expensive enough, potent enough, and enough of it to blur the reflexes of any man so that he would drive a car much too fast on icy streets in a blizzard. Turn a corner. Kill. Kill and run.
“It was a good drink in Montreal on January 26, 1929, wasn’t it, Mr. Wickert?”
I turned my back on him. Very deliberately I closed the library door. When I faced him again I could see the fear in his eyes. January 26,1929. He was holding the Scotch against his chest and leaning forward across the back of a chair.
“What—what did you say?”
“It was snowing,” I said. “Remember? And the road was icy. You must have had several meetings with your favorite brand, Mr. Wickert, to drive so fast on a night like that. You were lucky, weren’t you, until you came to the wrong corner?”
His mouth was open. He reversed four jerky steps until his back met the bookcase.
“What do you mean? I—don’t understand.”
I watched him. I could feel the blood pumping through my fingers.
“A boy,” I said. “A boy and his father, Mr. Wickert. Didn’t you know? After the—ah—accident you looked at the father. He wasn’t a very pretty sight, was he? Did you think of going for help, Mr. Wickert? The boy thought you were going for help, you know. You remember now, Mr. Wickert? You never came back. You rat, you never came back!”
Sidney M. Wickert swayed. He struggled to speak. There was no sound. His face turned an ashen grey, his fingers twisted oddly at the air and he fell forward on his face.
THE ruddy-complexioned doctor who had attended Curtiss came. “Overwork, strain—a good week’s rest. Don’t hesitate to call me.” Cecelia was my reporter. I stood outside of the bedroom where I had carried Sidney M. Wickert.
“I’m glad you were here, Johnny. I was so frightened !”
“There may be aftereffects,” I said. I intended that there should be aftereffects. I was forming a plan.
Thomas sidled up to me at seven that evening, the second - to - last time I ever saw Sidney M. Wickert.
“Mr. Wickert would like to see you, sir.”
My heart thudded hard. “Right.”
He had recovered from the initial shock. I saw that clearly. He was sitting at his desk. His green eyes flickered across my face, quickly.
“What are you going to do?”
“What do you expect?” I said.
“You have no proof.”
“Are you sure?”
“We’ll let the Crown decide,”
I said. “I’ve waited eleven years. I’m in no hurry.”
He licked his lips. He opened a drawer of the desk in a hurried tug. Papers spilled as he took out a rectangular book. I heard a pen scratching nervously. He came around a corner of the desk, arm extended.
“Mr. Pace, I’ll speak frankly. Your charge is hopeless without evidence. But I am prepared to recognize your nuisance value in another matter.”
“My wife says Cecelia has fallen in love with you.”
That stopped me, momentarily. Cecelia. I hadn’t given the angle much thought.
“Suppose she has?”
“My wife is interested in seeing that Cecelia marries Mr. Barraway.” “I get it,” I said. “But you’re not worrying about that. It’s your own skin you want to look after. Hit-and-run isn’t a coy catchword. They may not call it murder, as I would, but it should be good enough for years in a big building where you can’t run away, where you can’t ever run away. And your son, Mr. Wickert—you care a lot for each other, don’t you?”
“Leave Curtiss out of this!”
“But of course!” I said. “He’ll find out for himself fast enough when the time comes. And something will die in him. Ever notice the way he looks at you now?”
He went very white. The slip of paper trembled as he thrust it at me.
“Here—take this! Have I your word it will adjust. . .everything?” It was a cheque for $10,000.
I looked at him. There was smug confidence in his stance. Ten thousand dollars. Enough to take care of Mom and Bruce and Bill and Quentin. . . Ten thousand dollars— to forget a moment that a conviction couldn’t heal. To forget a girl I didn’t love anyway.
I took his cheque. I made a little paper airplane of it. It dropped directly at his feet, before his dazed, green eyes. I stood close to him.
Listen, Mr. Wickert. Listen, carefully. You’re going to pay for killing my father. On my plan. It’s a sort of installment plan. You see, I’m going away. When I’m gone you’ll be quite safe. But you’ll think of me, and every time you do— that will be a payment. You’ll be wondering about the number of years you’ll get...what will happen to your wife and Cecelia. . .what Curtiss will do when he knows...who can help you. No one can help you. When the war is over I’ll see you again. For the final payment. Manslaughter? I don’t know. I won’t worry about it. You will. So go ahead—make all the money you can. Save it for the cleverest lawyers you can buy. Plan your defense. Ten thousand dollars. Put it in Victory Bonds. Safeguard your future, Mr. Wickert! Or will there be a future for you? Because I’ll be back. I’ll be back!”
I pushed him away from me. Hard. Hard enough so that he stumbled and measured his length on his fancy Persian rug. He looked oddly the way my father had looked, sprawled in the street with the snow settling in the blood in his hair.
There was a difference. Sidney M. Wickert was not dead. But from the staring blankness in his green eyes he might as well have been.
IN TWO months we were up to our perspiring ears in tank tactics “somewhere in England.”
Elizabeth was with them at la gare Bonaventure. I felt like going down on my knees to her and begging her forgiveness. I couldn’t, somehow, say anything. She was friendly, nothing more. I managed an awkward, stiff salute from the window. She smiled. I carried that smile with me for months.
In the weeks that followed, the whirl of events jabbed steadily at my subconscious mind but they never dislodged the deep, steady purpose in the plan I had formed to supplement justice. I knew that Sidney M. Wickert was suffering, yet I was impatient to be back.
Sidney M. Wickert had not been idle. He had been doing some research work in Montreal. I knew that when I received Cecelia’s letter, in November. The family had moved to Halifax.
“. . . Dad told me yesterday when he came home from Montreal that you had a girl there, Elizabeth something-or-other. Curtiss never mentioned her, and I do think it was rather unkind of you to embarrass me with Edgar by concealing the fact that you were solidly hooked. Dad told me a number of other things, not particularly palatable, but I prefer to disregard them ...”
In December Curtiss told me about the letter from his mother.
“Cecelia’s marrying Edgar in January, after all. He gets the vice-presidency at Toronto. And she—oh, the little fool! He won’t make her happy. But I don’t think she’ll ever be really happy. She changes too easily—styles, places, men. You know what I mean. She’s my sister, but I see her clearly, even from this distance. I’m glad it wasn’t you, Johnny.”
I almost told him, then, about his father. The words congealed in my throat.
“Don’t worry about Cecelia,” I said. “You’re a pessimist.”
I found my answer to everything at Dieppe.
Dieppe. Months before that Curtiss and I had taken an officers’ course. We emerged as lieutenants and were posted to a Tank Regiment. There were many things to share but one thing I couldn’t share, the note in the songs from Elizabeth.
I had written to her first, as one friend to another. I held my breath, waiting. When she answered, as that friend, there was music in her pen.
I carried the last line of one of her letters next to the anxious, eager hope in my heart.
“Every sunrise is a wish for you, Johnny,” she said.
The months turned over slowly and, abruptly, it was Dieppe.
We had plenty of lead tossed at us from the very moment our tanks reached shore.
I didn’t see Curtiss at all during the day. Not until we were re-embarking.
On the beaches now hundreds of men were struggling against the heavy fire that was raking the embarkation craft. My men and myself plowed through the concealing vapor toward a rapidly filling commando boat.
Then I saw Curtiss. He was grimy and sweat-streaked, as all of us were, and he was cursing his men into the boats with a gentle ferocity that made me grin. I headed his way.
He turned and saw me. And then a sudden, searing flame cut through my left leg. It collapsed under me. I went to my knees, shrouded in upflung dirt and smoke.
When the explosion had cleared, I saw Curtiss again. He was running back toward me. I waved him away. The embarkation craft was pulling out.
He bent over me. “Want to spend the rest of the war in a rotting Nazi camp?” he yelled in my ear.
“Blow—fancy pants,” I whispered. My leg was on fire.
He had me halfway over his shoulder when I felt him jerk stiffly. He kept going. At the barge he might have left it to others to haul me aboard, but he didn’t. I was up, and in, with Curtiss still desperately exposed, when it happened.
Blood, warm and red, suddenly bathed the entire left side of his young face. He had a familiar, set stillness to his lips and eyes as he went down.
He was quite dead.
IN HALIFAX I went to see Sidney M. Wickert. Thomas was still his butler and he took me in to the presence.
I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw Sidney M. Wickert. He stood in his drawing-room and peered at me. He had a half-filled glass in his hand. He was a shadow. He was a straw that had once been crisp and even.
“So you’re back.” His voice was thick.
“Yes. I’m back.”
“Have a drink?” He gestured.
He stared at me and a pitiful eagerness quivered in his lips and hands. “Well? Go on. . .how did he die? Don’t you know? How did he die?”
So I told him. We sat down and he looked straight ahead all the time. Once or twice he closed his eyes, as though he could see Curtiss again, young, alive, perhaps calling him an old water buffalo. When I had finished, many minutes later, he poured himself another drink. He spoke, slowly.
“He won the Military Cross—and they gave it to me.”
“You can be very proud of him, Mr. Wickert.” I rose. He followed me to the door. He stopped me there. He smiled, bitterly.
“Aren’t you — forgetting something?”
“I’ve forgotten nothing,” I said. “The case has been settled—not by us. Good-by, Mr. Wickert. Good luck.
The train pulled in to la gare Bonaventure at seven in the evening. Mom was there. Ste. Agathe was a memory. Yes, as I said, there was pride in their eyes, thanks in the touch of their hands. To one side stood Elizabeth. I went to her.
She opened her coat. There, glorious in the grey dawn, was the crimson dress, with my Army pin shining at her breast. She held her arms wide and I came into them.
WELL, here I am in Pakowsky’s Corner Store. In the section I know so well from twelve years ago I find the one thing more I need. Quentin is thirteen now, and he devours them.
“Let’s have half a dozen of these comic magazines.”
Young Pakowsky picks out five. He hesitates at the sixth.
“Howja like this one, mister? They turn out lots of ’em. F’ntastic comics. Pretty good. I read ’em myself.”
“What’s that supposed to be on the cover?” I squint.
Young Pakowsky chuckles. “The guy drivin’ the rocket ship? Wit’ th’ green eyes? Har! Darn’ if I know! Some monster from Mars or some’p’n.”
“I’ll take it,” I say.
Again he grins confidently when he hands me my change. It’s correct. He looks hard at my uniform.
“Hey! I shoulda known! Yer a Captain! Gee, Captain, at Dieppe— there sure was action there, wasn’t there?”
“There certainly was,” I agree. It sounds better each time I say it. I’ll be an instructor in some training camp in Canada now. I’m going to like telling the boys about Dieppe.
I leave Pakowsky’s Corner Store, and the snow is thicker as I walk toward home. I hold The-Parcel-Mustn’t-be-Crushed gently under my arm. What’s in it? Well, you may call it a little silly, a shade of over-sentiment if you wish. I’m taking it home with my story. It’s a gardenia. For a girl. In a half-hour she’ll be wearing it in her ebony hair and we’ll be standing on the bridge across the Lachine Canal. The canal waters will he frozen. There won’t be any filibustering freighter. But the lights will be shining again, softly. The candles in a shrine.
And standing there together we’ll say a prayer for a very gallant gentleman who died that we may live on, in peace.